When I was the creative writing rep on Kay Schomp’s arts advisory committee, 1991 – 1993, I learned that a teacher named Jana Clark had been hired for CW. I visited Cole regularly during DSA’s first year, met Jana there, realizing, as soon as I saw her, that we’d been in grad school lit classes together at UCD a few years earlier.
Ah, yes, I thought: she’s that woman who always had something to say. Furthermore, what she had to say was often a relevant point no one had yet raised and sometimes was contrary to the professor’s position. Jana and I were of the same mature age group then, as we are now. The young grad students in those classes were intimidated by her, as well they should have been.
My idea in pursuing the MA was to go into teaching. I was a mid-level program manager and bored. Teaching was that appealing, greener grass on the other side of the fence, but I had no clue what it involved. On one occasion, I needed to meet with Jana at Cole between classes. One of the clues about teaching I lacked was how short the interval between classes is. Students were already trickling in. Four seventh grade girls crashed into the room, giggling, shoving and tripping over a desk, which tipped on its side, taking two of the girls with it, screaming, both of whom then stayed on the floor, laughing hysterically.
Mouth agape, I stared wide-eyed, managed to gesture toward them. Jana, who had not blinked and was still talking, nodded, “Oh, yes, the girls,” and finished the point she was making. It was the first lesson about teaching I learned from Jana Clark.
I call this JC Rule #1: Become unflappable. (It isn’t easy.)
Years later, as I labored over plans in August, Jana dismissed the effort with a wave of her hand: “You can’t plan your classes until you meet your kids.” The wisdom of that stayed with me for the rest of my teaching career. Of course you plan, you have specifics for day one and an overall idea for the semester, but experience proved her right: what works for one class falls flat in another and I never managed to teach a class exactly the same way twice.
JC Rule #2: Students are individuals, not widgets.
If you’ve spent any time in classrooms, you know that in every seventy children you teach, there will be one losing a mother to cancer or a father to divorce, losing someone to suicide or to accident. I’ve been in the creative writing room when such a tragedy came to pass and watched Jana Clark stop everything to break the news, to deal with the response and processing, and finally, the “what can we do.” She had “what we can do” ready, guided her students into supportive and healing activities. I myself still have a bundle of letters Jana had children write to me years ago, cannot quite let them go.
JC Rule #3: Life intrudes, and when it does, that is what you need to be teaching.
I’ve seen Jana get red hot furious for good reasons at school, and watched a student or two in need of chastising be thoroughly chastised. I’ve seen her in arms over something our principal or downtown administration or the state did. “That’s it,” she said when Bill Owens was elected governor, “God help education in Colorado now.” I’ve seen her leave school exhausted at the end of the day and heard her story about driving home so tired she fell asleep at a traffic light.
I robbed Jana of many writing exercises, have, for example, had students “write off the page,” choosing a line of writing to include in writing of their own. I watched her at Cole, as she labored over the seven-year curriculum she was developing, and for years creative writing remained one of the few arts departments with a seven-year curriculum.
Teaching is an art, and a teacher’s personality changes the classroom. I can’t teach like Jana anymore than she could teach like me. Once Jana retired, Sara F-D and I changed some stuff. Once I retired, Sara and Moss Kaplan changed some more. Now that Kaplan and Kohzadi have been running the program for four years, there have been numerous transformations, as there must be.
And yet, the calm and comfortable feeling when you walk into the creative writing rooms remains the same as it ever was. Students still meet in a large circle to write and share writing, or work individually at their computers. And their writing still rocks the world. If they get out of math early, at lunch, after school, they come to the creative writing rooms. They still find there a sense of belonging, a feeling of home. That foundation was laid in a couple of classrooms at Cole a quarter century ago, and is the enduring legacy of Jana Clark.